Canadian Labour Day, Established 1894

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Labour Day, the first Monday in September, has been a statutory holiday in Canada since 1894. It originated in the first workers’ rallies of the Victorian era.

Historically, workers marked the day with various activities. These included parades, speeches, games, amateur competitions and picnics. The holiday promoted working-class solidarity and belonging during a time of rapid industrialization. Since the Second World War, fewer and fewer people have participated in Labour Day activities. Nevertheless, it remains a statutory holiday. Many Canadians now devote the Labour Day holiday to leisure activity and family time.

First Celebrations and American Influence

Before the 1880s, people held sporadic festivities in connection with larger labour movements. Some historians trace the origin of Labour Day to the Nine Hour Movement (1872).

Labour organizations began to hold celebrations more frequently following a labour convention in New York in September 1882. Spurred on by this initial success, the  American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor actively promoted workers’ celebrations on the first Monday in September in the United States. The Canadian chapters of these organizations did the same. Records show similar gatherings in Toronto (1882); Hamilton and Oshawa (1883); Montreal (1886);  St. Catharines (1887); Halifax (1888); Ottawa and Vancouver (1890); and London (1892).

Canadian Labour Day Statutory Holiday

As the event grew more popular nationwide, labour organizations pressured governments to declare the first Monday in September a statutory holiday (see National Holidays). Their impact was significant enough that the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital in Canada (1886–89) recommended that the federal government establish a “labour day.” Before this, the day had official status in only a few municipalities. Montreal, for example, declared it a civic holiday in 1889.

In March and April 1894, more than 50 labour organizations from OntarioQuebecNew BrunswickManitoba and British Columbia petitioned parliamentarians. These groups included several regional trade and labour councils, as well as local assemblies of the Knights of Labor. They based their lobbying movement on similar initiatives from American unions. In the House of Commons, a bill sponsored by Prime Minister John Thompson prompted the debate about the holiday’s legal status in May 1894. The House passed an amended holiday law without major discussion. It received royal assent on 23 July. The United States federal government also recognized the holiday in 1894.

The provinces had no choice but to adapt. For example, Quebec parliamentarians announced that the province’s courts would not sit on the first Monday in September of that year. It wasn’t until 1899 that the province granted the holiday legal status, ordering school boards to delay the start of classes until after the first Monday in September.

Parades and Popular Celebrations

Canadians celebrated Labour Day with much ceremony on 3 September 1894. In Montreal, the city’s Trades and Labour Congress played a key role in organizing events for the day. A parade set out from the Champ de Mars park at 9:00 a.m. Its divisions grouped together  unions representing the same trade. The Grande-Hermine local assembly of the Knights of Labor led the way. It guided participants to a park where they held speeches, games and a picnic. In Quebec City, the Trades and Labour Congress chose instead to hold a mass followed by entertainment. This included bicycle competitions, foot races and a lacrosse match.

Labour Day parade in Dawson City, Yukon in 1906.
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